It was a bright sunny day in Boston. The sky was uncomfortably blue; I was staring at it for a long time. I felt like something just passed through my eyes. It was an old lady, dressed in a peculiar way, walking towards the train station. Boston is quite a diverse town; many ethnic groups dress in their traditional attires and go to the church on Sundays. For some reason, most of them look like Royal families. The old lady, with her Royal costume – she must have headed to the Church near the… but wait, it was Saturday. Anyway, I was there at my desk and continued with my work.
It was an ear-piercing sound. I looked out, annoyed. The same old lady was staring at me. I didn’t know her. And when we don’t know someone, we somehow assume that the person must smell bad. I was very convinced by this thought, and it made me more uncomfortable.
“Hey!!!” She shouted again.
“What do you want?”
“What are you doing?”
“None of your business. Get off.”
“Haven’t you been looking for me all around your computer?” She was very persistent.
“What is Halloween?
When is Halloween?
Why people wear costumes on Halloween?
Why trick or treat?”
Now I was little concerned, actually worried. I know our phones and digital devices monitor our data, search history and behaviors, now they were sending real people with the search results. It’s ridiculous this old lady was playing with me.
“Stop all that bullshit and get out of here,” I shouted.
“This year, Halloween falls on 31st October, Thursday.” She shouted too.
“Thank you very much for the information, now you go away, or I will call the cops,” I yelled back.
But she smiled; I must say she had a warm smile. At that moment, I thought that if she keeps smiling like that I might keep talking to her.
“Hey! Where are you from?” She was really annoying. I could no longer keep up with the thought of talking to her just because of her smile. I don’t like anyone asking me this question, and it’s rude to ask this question to someone you don’t know. That too, so bluntly.
“Why you care? Where are YOU from?”
She laughed. The sound of her laughter was rough as if coming out of some cave, a not-so-deep tiny cave. I thought she must be a chain smoker. “No wonder!” I shrugged.
“Google it if you don’t believe,” she continued, “it was not originated in America. Nearly, 2000 years ago, there was an ancient Celtic tradition of Samhain.”
“Where in the Celtic region?” I couldn’t even believe I was in the middle of the conversation with her, I must say she was very intriguing.
She laughed again; the rustic sound of her voice was kind of making me nostalgic and melancholic. I notice she also had this Irish accent and she was my grandmother’s age; maybe that was the reason I fell for her words.
“First you tell me where you are from” My eyes zoomed into her. We looked into each other’s eyes.
“Come down!” she whispered.
Next thing I noticed, I was standing right next to her, my face almost touching her. She didn’t smell bad at all, neither a hint of tobacco. Instead, she smelled like roasted cinnamon. She was an exceptionally clean and warm old lady. I felt I wanted to hug her, but then she touched my face, and I was so startled that I stepped back.
She had short black hair, white bandana, maroon blouse, greenish-black oversized coat, and a black skirt. Her blouse and coat had very intricate Native American embroidery. I wasn’t scared, but everything was strange.
“Do you wanna have some Pumpkin Spiced Latte with almond milk?”
Again, how did she know? But from that point, I stopped questioning the reality. I don’t even recall having a Starbucks near my house and I don’t recall walking or taking any train or UBER.
She took a sip, looked at me and smiled again.
“Okay, tell me more,” I said.
She replied, “About what? Oh! Yes me? I came to this country……”
I stopped her, “Hold on, you were talking about Halloween.” She was slightly disappointed, and I felt bad for interrupting her.
“Halloween is celebrated to welcome the new harvest. Preparation for the winter or rather the darker days ahead,” she continued. I was like okay! Since I know her now, I can ask her personal story later. Her enthusiasm for Halloween seemed uncontrollable.
“In Celtic tradition, November 1 was believed to be the New Year’s Day. Thus, the night before was called Hallow Eve, which later became Halloween.” She leaned on her right for her latte.
“You said Halloween was an immigrant?” I sounded very weird. I looked around if somebcosuody was listening.
She laughed, “he…he…ee… ee”.
That voice… she sounded like some Witch on TV; I was embarrassed, but no one else seemed to care.
“Halloween was originated from the Celtic region, and when our people immigrated to America, they brought their traditions and culture. Don’t you still do it? What you brought in your journey?” She took another sip of her latte. I kept staring at her and thinking about what she had just said.
“Then the European ethnic groups and American Indians got mixed together and created an American version of Halloween. Isn’t that beautiful?” I got a little emotional with her questions. But, she looked into my eyes and smiled.
“Halloween was not as widely celebrated in America until the late 19th century, when the wide number of immigrants started to flood into America.” I nodded my head, still processing the information.
“Later, to give Halloween a Christian look, priests established November 1st as a day to honor the Saints, and the evening before became Halloween.”
It suddenly dawned on me; is this someone doing a Halloween prank on me? I hate pranks. Is she wearing some kind of costume to scare me? But she was anything but spooky.
I asked again, “Why wear costumes on Halloween?”
“In the Celtic tradition, it was believed that the barriers between the physical and the spiritual world dissolves during Samhain. And because there are no barriers, there is a mix up between these two worlds.”
That was too much information. I needed some kind of distraction. But, I didn’t want to miss out.
“People wear costumes to defend against ghosts. The idea is also to blend in, with the spirit, so that the spirit will not trouble the humans.”
Outside the window, the road was filled with fresh yellow and red leaves fallen from the trees. Before I could immerse myself completely in the thought of Boston being an Autumn Paradise and a home to most photographed street in the US, a curiosity took over me and I asked her, “It’s quite contradictory, if the ghosts are so powerful then how come they are so naïve to not know it’s human being in a disguise?”
“The power is blind, if you put up a good show then you can confuse even a ghost. No one cares for the truth. Or maybe, the spirit is happy with the mere fact that you are so scared and trying hard to protect yourself, and it will leave you alone.”
The level of perfection people achieve in make-up and costume these days on Halloween, the ghosts might be more scared of human beings.
“he…hee….eee.ee” There was that hideous laughter again…
“Shhhhh! why are you so extra? Anyway, there is no point making sense out of an oral tradition.”
We drank coffee in silence for a while.
“Hey do you fear the spirit?” she whispered.
And I certainly do.
“What is spirit? Spirits are the people who lived with you, like your father….. grandfather and your Nana…. Were you afraid of them when they were alive? Then why are you now, just because they have left their bodies? Why would they wanna harm you?” I didn’t know how to answer, I tried to sip the coffee, the cup was empty.
After a few moments of silence, I asked, “Is that what spirit means? The dead people?”
“To some extent, yes!” she said.
“Elaborate please,” I insisted.
“Let’s not go there, my dear. The point here is, you don’t fear the spirit. Just like everyone else, you fear the unknown,” she continued, “which is quite common. Your mind can’t defend you against what it can’t see, for instance – future. The mind can’t see the future. Thus, you can’t do anything about it. And it means you are always worried about it. Fear is a constant phenomenon and every fear boils down to the fear of death. Death is the only thing that is certain for every living being, yet the most unknown, so to be apprehensive of, Halloween celebrates death.”
All I could do was rest my chin on my right palm and listen to her, like a child. I saw her like some fortuneteller, speaking in a strange voice. I reflected my thought to her.
“Fortune telling……!!! Bullshit!!”
“During the Halloween season, the tradition of prophecy is extremely popular. But believe me, there is no way to know about the future. Yet, YOU think; during the dark days of winter, it must feel comfortable to know about the future. Don’t you read your horoscope every day? The day people feel comfortable with not knowing the future and live in the present moment, all the fortune-tellers and horoscope people will go out of business.”
She was aggravated, “A lot of other businesses will shut down as well, beginning with politics.” I laughed and said, “You wish old lady!”
The empty cups on the table suggested that lot of time had passed already and I am a slow coffee drinker.
“Don’t you have to be somewhere? You were headed to the station, right?”
She replied, “I am where I was supposed to be, with you. Right here, right now. Do you have any other questions?”
“Yes, why trick or treat in Halloween?”
“Do you know we have similar tradition called Deusi Ra Bhailo, during the festival called Tihar? It falls almost on the same week as…,” she interrupted, “I know, but the reason behind it is not same.” I asked her how she knew. “So far you must have realized who is the wise one here.” She fixed her collar. (Freaking Show-Off!!!)
“You celebrate Tihar in the hope that you will light up the darker days of winter with your little oil lamp of yours and go house to house with your blessings in form of Deusi and Bhailo. Whereas in Halloween, we just accept the darker days and don’t do much about it. You see what you have brought to this country?”
I agreed, but, I am still not quite sure what I have brought with me.
“In trick or treat, kids go house to house and sing songs in the honor of the people who died in that year and they used to get cakes as a gratitude. Later people got lazy and replaced it with candies. Do you know one third of the total candy sales in America is during Halloween?” Her eyes sparkled like that of a kid.
“It’s more like the Gaijatra then, that is where we celebrate the death” I was shouting for some reason.
“Black cats; Walking under the ladder; Breaking of a mirror – they are believed to be bad omen.” I was shouting over my lungs.
“Like everywhere around the world. But understand that the poor black cat may not have anything to do with it, it’s just some stupid superstition and the fear of….”
“Unknown,” I uttered. That was a strange voice coming out of me.
On the next moment, I found myself in my living room staring at the blue Sky, but by this time the Sun was setting, and the Sky had some red tint like it was blushing.
I looked down on the street. The old lady was about to get out of my sight around the corner, “Heyy……” I shouted out of my lungs, she looked back, and smiled at me. Oh! that smile; I should’ve touched her face, I should’ve hugged her, I should’ve………
“What happened?” She asked softly. I shouted over the sound of passing train, “Ashok was asking why the pumpkins. And why carve them?” She smiled, and I stretched my hands, frantically wanting to touch her one last time. “Tell him not to think too much about it, just an idea of lanterns, carve it and put some light in it. It will look beautiful.” She disappeared under the over-head bridge.
I could still hear her voice, her annoying old lady voice, the witch voice, fortune-teller voice and my favorite; the Grandma voice, “Halloween is the celebration of past, present and future; humans and spirits mix up during the Halloween. It’s the celebration of Death.”
(Have you met Halloween yet? She may visit you next.)
– Samuna KC